Sunday August 13 at 10:30 am
Blackfriars Playhouse | $16-$20
John Wilbye, born in 1574 in Diss, Norfolk, was the son of a wealthy tanner and by the age of 24 had entered into service for the well-to-do Kytson family at Hengrave Hall. Given his patrons’ interest in musical entertainment and the musical resources at his disposal at the residence, he spent almost 30 years there in service as a domestic musician. During this period, Wilbye was able to dedicate his time to the publication of two separate collections of madrigals, one in 1598 and the other in 1609, as well as the contribution of a single madrigal to Thomas Morley’s The Triumphes of Oriana published in 1601. Wilbye’s “The Lady Oriana” constitutes one of 25 madrigals written with the apparent goal of extolling the virtues of one “fair Oriana.” This moniker was believed for many years to refer to Queen Elizabeth I, although in recent years this assignation has been contested by musicologists. Regardless of the mystery surrounding the intended dedicatee, Wilbye’s song still clearly evokes regal imagery in the text.
“Weep, Weep Mine Eyes” derives from Wilbye’s 1609 anthology of madrigals, and references two ill-fated lovers—Leander and Flaminia—from the Walter Hawkesworth play Leander published at the turn of the century. Leander and Flaminia take turns lamenting their approaching separation, but with differing outlooks. Leander, who sings first, appears to be wracked with grief, while Flaminia ultimately finds solace in the idea of the two reuniting in death.
Thomas Weelkes was Wilbye’s contemporary (just younger by about two years) and also found success in madrigal writing. He too contributed a composition to Morley’s Triumphes of Oriana—“As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending.” This particular madrigal is a shining example of the ways in which English composers used the madrigal as a vehicle for exploring the ideal marriage of text and music. Weelkes’ musical gestures so often vividly evoke the words to which they are set, literally descending in pitch while performers sing of “descending” and “running down,” and rising when the performers sing of “ascending.” The composer even goes so far as to voice the phrases “two by two” and “three by three” with two voices and three voices, respectively. Coupled with striking contrapuntal richness, Weelkes’ madrigal offers countless sonic gems for the attentive listener.
A note about Six Pieces for Wind Quintet by composer Anders Hillborg, written for and commissioned by The Royal Stockholm Opera Wind Soloists in 2007:
The opening piece of my Six Pieces for Wind Quintet is written in a quasi-tonal style , remotely reminiscent of Stravinsky; it starts out with an eruptive gesture of upward scales, followed by soft, long-spun melodic lines accompanied by a gentle walking bass in the Bassoon. This scheme is repeated once, but when the opening gesture appears a third time, instead of continuing as before, the music blazes into the 2nd Movement, a ferocious flow where the instruments imitate and echo each other in a furious tempo. This is followed by a calm movement where the Bassoon again provides a steady walking bass through an idyllic landscape featuring the Flute in a repetitive perpetuum mobile-pattern. The 4th piece, in contrast, is a wild and heavy orgy with strong focus on pulse and aggressive syncopations, mainly based on octatonic scales (= regular alternation of major and minor seconds). The 5th piece also uses octatonic scales as basic material, but contrasts to all the other ones in being extremely calm and slow in character. The last piece starts with wide, sustained chords suggesting vast, open landscapes, and ends with a crazed funky race on the verge of the playable.
Capriccio was Richard Strauss’s final operatic composition, written in the midst of the Second World War between 1940 and 1941. Strauss claimed to have struggled for years with issues regarding the clarity of sung text in his operas, and thus experimented with various ways in which he could best balance singers’ and instrumentalists’ voices and make both equally heard within his staged works. The “words vs. music” theme is particularly obvious in Capriccio, for the plot revolves around the marriage choice of a sought-after Countess – will she choose the poet who recites sonnets to her, or will she choose the composer who sets his amorous sentiments to music? The sextet performed in today’s concert provides the introductory music for the opera, and functions both as a gateway for listeners into the soundworld of Capriccio while also demonstrating the composer’s artistic talents to the Countess. Here it seems as if both the composer and Strauss himself are pleading with all listening to hear the depth and sophistication of meaning possible in the language of music, even in music without words.
There are few figures who loom quite as large in the history of the violin – or of the Romantic virtuoso – as Niccolò Paganini. The Italian made waves in 19th-century Europe for his hypnotic showmanship while onstage. As a performer, he was one of the foremost influences on renowned pianist Franz Liszt, who took inspiration from Paganini’s ability to draw crowds through a dazzling combination of technical acumen and flair.
As a composer, the violinist had a different legacy, not having published many of his written works, but rather saving them for personal use. In 1820, however, he did publish his 24 Caprices, a collection of short pieces written years earlier, between 1801 and 1807. As is the case with etudes, each piece addresses a specific technical skill, like playing series of octaves, arpeggios, or scales, as well as focusing on particular bowing techniques, and switching techniques and/or positions quickly. Not to mention – all of this is expected to be done with quite admirable speed. Clocking in at over an hour, the entire set of Caprices presents a bit of a challenge for performers – and perhaps for audiences’ attention spans – for a single morning concert. So please enjoy this condensed version, created and performed for you today by the Tiksola duo of Antti Tikkanen and Minna Pensola. Rest assured: we may have withheld some of the notes, but none of the fireworks of a Paganini-worthy performance.
© Emily Masincup, 2023